Experiencing the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

The following is an excerpt from my manuscript for my memoir, It Takes Backbone, which I’m completing through my Master’s program. I look forward to your feedback, but please keep it mind, it’s only my first draft. Enjoy!

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Chapter 21: The North
Agra, India

I book an AC Sleeper bus from Hospet to Bangalore, leaving at 11 p.m. and arriving at 6 a.m. At the bus station, I’m told my bus will be “outside.” I search for signage that matches the information on my printed pass. Nothing. I ask an employee to take me to the exact spot my bus will depart from.

We leave the bus station. The streets are noisy and soaked in darkness. The man I trail behind asks a rickshaw driver for directions, waving my booking reference around like a Polaroid. We walk down an unlit side street to a travel agency. He leaves me on the curb to wait.

I’m tired, confused, and I really have to pee.

I pull my luggage inside the building and ask the man behind the counter for the bathroom. He points down the hallway. I find one filthy, dark room with a urinal. No toilet. Frustrated and about to pee my pants, I squat over a drain in the corner of the room and urinate onto the floor.

I feel disgusting. I want to cry, but I also want to kill someone. Why does this have to be so hard?

Passengers start to trickle into the travel agency, where I wait inside in the light. The bus pulls up to the curb a couple minutes after 11 p.m. and my stress levels lower, but only slightly. I climb in and claim my single bunk, happy to find curtains that will separate me from the other passengers. I tuck my phone under my pillow and drift in and out of consciousness.

As soon as we arrive in Bangalore, I order a cab to meet me on the Ola app Karishma told me about. When I disembark the bus, rickshaws swarm me. I have to physically fight to cross the street and find my cab. I pay 643 rupees for a ride to the airport, where I’ll catch my flight to the last place in India I wanted to go.

Delhi.

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When I was planning my month in India, I heard the same advice over and over again: don’t go to Delhi. Travellers told me it was their worst experience; the news told me it was the most dangerous place for a solo female foreigner.

I have no intention of spending any time in Delhi, but it’s the closest airport to the Taj Mahal.  I couldn’t go to India and not see the Taj.

My plane touches down through milky skies that constrict the city like gauze. After collecting my bag, I exit the airport, heading straight for the prepaid taxi booth. I arrange a four-hour ride to Agra for 5,500 rupees. It’s by far the most money I’ve spent on this trip.

I feel a little foolish for thinking I could backpack India on a budget like I had Europe and Australia. It would be a lot cheaper and easier to take the train, but after my last experience, I’m wary. Beyond that, I’m already tired and uncomfortable. Even a cab could be unsafe—in 2004, an Australian tourist was raped and murdered in a government cab exactly like the one I’m taking. I take a photo of the driver’s license plate and send it to Karishma.

The driver drops me off at the Radisson Blu Taj East Gate. I’ve splurged for a double-room with air conditioning and a TV. I dive into the outdoor pool to wash off the heat. As the sun sets, I find a street vendor selling noodles on paper plates and bring the salty mess back to my luxurious hotel room, where I eat on freshly washed sheets, a Bollywood film flickering in the background. I feel like a queen.

And most importantly, I feel safe.

I know that not everyone would agree with how I’ve decided to travel India. I wouldn’t have, either, before I got here. I’ve always called myself a backpacker, forgoing hotels in lieu of hostels and international friends. Everyone has a different experience everywhere they go, based on how the weather is, who they meet, what happens and why they went there in the first place. Someone might follow my exact journey and have a completely different experience. I truly believe that there are good people and bad people everywhere you go, and I’ve been lucky to encounter several incredibly kind, helpful people in India. But I can’t pretend travelling solo here is easy for me. I wanted to love India, to travel through the country alone and unafraid, but even as I get more used to shrugging off the stares and camera clicks and cat-calls, I never become comfortable with them.

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My alarm blares across the air-conditioned room at 5 a.m. I pull myself out of bed and grab my camera, aiming to catch the mausoleum at sunrise. The ticket booth is on the same street as my hotel. As with many tourist destinations in India, the entrance fee for Indians is minimal, while foreigners pay 750 rupees for a “high value” ticket. But hey, that includes shoe covers and a bottle of water.

A free electric bus takes me and the smattering of tourists up at this ungodly hour down the road to the Taj. Gasoline vehicles aren’t allowed within the vicinity. “Tour guides” sneakily try to tell me about the Taj, but sulk away when I loudly announce I won’t be paying them. I want to wander alone. I’m sick of being surrounded by oppressive flocks of people. Plus, I haven’t had any coffee yet, so I’m not exactly my friendliest self.

The vendors clear off as we enter. I turn and look through an oval doorway—and there it is. I lose my breath when I first glimpse the symmetrically perfect white marble building glowing in the muggy pink dawn.

I enter the grounds beneath a red gate and the photo snapping starts. I walk along the shallow silver-blue water, admiring the perfect reflections. Up close, I walk into the quiet tomb and run my hands over the colourful stones that fill the deep engravings in the walls.

It’s breathtaking.

I walk into the garden and find a spot to sit. Monkeys race across the surrounding walls, fighting for food. More tourists filter in as the sun lethargically rises. As the grounds fill with noise and people and sunshine, I stand up and walk away.

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